I Asked a Bunch of Industry People: What’s the Point of Fashion?

I have had a very dramatic question on my mind since Amelia and I set foot in Paris together last February for the fall 2017 shows. We sat at a cafe drinking cappuccino at tables that were far too small for our laptops but which we managed to use for work anyway. She was working on a review that would publish when New York woke up four hours later, and I was doing math — adding the cost of our plane tickets to our hotel room to the number of nights we would be in Paris to the food we would most likely consume and the pair of shoes or jacket or sunglasses I would probably end up buying because there is something about Paris that burns a hole through your pocket if you so much as attempt frugality.

I was also thinking about who reads our reviews, who cares that we cover shows — that with flowery prose we try to make sense of the fashion trends that lay ahead, to unlock the Da Vinci code that is a designer’s most intimate thoughts. Do the readers care? Do they need more than a photo on Instagram to get what they crave: a brief (but often wondrous) look at what’s new? Would they prefer to see glimpses of real life instead? (I know I would!)

So I asked myself: What are we doing here? How did we get here? Is this what fashion is about? Are we acting true to our ethos or simply following along on a track that has been bound toward derailment for years? And then I endeavored to answer this question: What’s the point of fashion? Does fashion week have anything to do with it? Have we conflated the two?

I have always metabolized fashion as my own form of escapism — a temporary tattoo that lets me speak with wild conviction but then take it back whenever I want. Fashion is so much more than just clothing for the people who feel they can let it in; it can become the greatest sum of her parts, a megaphone for articulation where words simply will not work. It can be a drug-free boost that makes a terrible day seem slightly better, a reminder through the depths of desperation that even if nothing else is going as I’ve planned, I’m armed. As Diana Vreeland famously said: “Fashion must be the most intoxicating release from the banality of the world.”

Below, 12 editors, writers, designers, shop owners, stylists and consultants share their opinions on my burning question: What’s the point of fashion? (Feel free to share your response, too!)

“Fashion, to me, represents life. When I wear something that makes me feel more…creative, more interesting, stronger, complicated — that’s when I feel the most alive, the most engaged with the world. Changing my wardrobe is the quickest route to feeling like everything is new again, that anything is possible. So the purpose of fashion is to make you feel alive and present. I hate it when people get too philosophical about fashion, but this really is the truth!”

Amy Smilovic, founder and designer of Tibi

“The purpose of fashion can be as simple as: You need clothing to maneuver in the world. Forget fashion as trend, think fashion and clothing as necessity. You need a pair of pants, a shirt, shoes to go on that interview, to the grocery store, your cousin’s wedding. It’s how we present ourselves to live.”

Rajni Jacques, fashion director, Teen Vogue and Allure

“I know practically, fashion is art, it’s commerce, it’s function, it’s expression. But I also can’t mistake the simple gut reaction I have when I see something I love, that really knocks me out. It’s like out of the blue, finding something special that you’ve lost. You know that feeling: ‘Oh geezus, THERE it is!’ And then, somehow you find a way to make it your own, and once it is [your own], you’re just a little bit more yourself than you were before you found it? That’s fashion to me. Collecting beautiful little pieces of yourself over time.”

Christene Barberich, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Refinery29

“A form of expression without the use of words. To me, it’s very personal, real and raw; it’s a way of syncing the internal with the external. Or maybe at times it’s just securing a feeling you want to nurture. It’s never about the people around me. To me, that’s like ordering from a menu for someone else — only you know what you want to eat…if you order someone the burger and think, Oh they will LOVE this, you never know, they could show up and say, ‘I became vegan about two hours ago.'”

Claire Distenfeld, owner of Fivestory

“Joy. That is the purpose of fashion for me. The joy of wearing something that makes you feel powerful or beautiful or in control. The joy of seeing a fashion show so beautiful that it turns you into a wide-eyed eight-year-old. The joy of buying something you dream about, or giving that to someone else. The joy of the new. It’s not about feeling less than — less cool, less rich, less skinny (as I know fashion can so often do). It’s about what makes you feel better.”

Laura Brown, editor-in-chief of InStyle

“There are many forms fashion take, from what I wear to drop my daughter off at school, to what I wear to fashion week. The brands that I gravitate toward all share a similar philosophy of quality, integrity and individuality. What and who you wear and how and when you wear it are all part of that personal expression. While being mindful of not over-consuming and not wanting to simply buy all the time, I try to be thoughtful with any purchase of ‘fashion’ to be sure that it can have a long life in my wardrobe and on me. The purpose of fashion, for me, is many things. It’s work, it’s protection, it helps me communicate who I am.”

Ramya Giangola, fashion consultant

“The purpose of fashion is to negate our persistent fear of death. Decorating ourselves in particular things helps to craft an identity, which creates the illusion of permanency. If we buy things and we define the way we look, it makes our existence feel more real and everlasting. The end! (But hopefully not.)”

Lauren Sherman, New York editor of Business of Fashion

“Fashion celebrates women. Women aren’t the only ones who get to wear fashion, of course, but women drive this business on the consumer side and in media, sales, PR, styling and design. Every morning I walk through doors with a powerful woman’s name on them. Most editors I work with are women, with other women at the top of their mastheads. This will appear on a website masterminded and run by women! My first job was at Oscar de la Renta, and he used to say that his clothes were love letters to the people who wore them. At the heart, I think that’s what fashion should always be about: the celebration of a person’s beauty and strength, on and off the runway.”

Gabby Katz, account director at Karla Otto

“The point of fashion is to protect you. But that can mean different things. Most basically, fashion exists to cover you; the ‘protection’ can change depending on who you are and where you are. Fashion can be used to boost confidence (protect you from feeling shitty about yourself), to protect you from being an outsider (you bought a fleeting trend). At various times in my life, I’ve dressed specifically to protect myself from appearing approachable because I was feeling shy.”

Ruthie Friedlander, site director, InStyle

“If you’re outside of fashion’s congregation (if you just don’t care, or if it in no way crosses your radar), the point of fashion as an abstract or an ideal or something conceptual, I hope, is to at least spark a thought. ANY thought. A throwback, an idea, a reckoning, a consideration of a moment in time, pop-related or otherwise, that resonates. There are things that can be pondered and traced through fashion. And I think that’s the real point: to give you pause and make you consider, for a second, something broader.”

Nick Remsen, freelance fashion writer

“Fashion is about storytelling through clothing; it’s about the stories behind them and the ones you create around them. It’s a cultural influence, backstory or intellectual touchpoint that you can trace back to what you’re wearing. We use it to escape the mundane, to embrace and celebrate tradition. It’s about a sense of history and pride and it embodies a greater sense of purpose than just a garment tossed on to cover bodies.”

Shiona Turini, freelance stylist and consultant

“Fashion ties us to moments of our existence. It adds to the elements of our emotional and physical sensories by being a literal fabric and thread in our lives. I’ll never forget the feeling of saving enough money to buy a green Benetton rugby shirt, or this yellow dress with brown pom-poms that I had when I was four. Think about how emotionally tied you can become to a wardrobe in a film — to me, that is the point of fashion: to help connect and mark time.”

Karla Welch, celebrity stylist

Photo by Simon Chetrit.

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  • Babs

    Re your second paragraph, I love reading your thoughts on emerging themes, trends, and changing psychologies in fashion, whether it’s during fashion week or not. The short show recaps tend to feel reductive? Like maybe I’d rather draw my own conclusions.

    Re these lovely quotes, I think Christene takes the cake!!! I’ve not only been moved by clothes I happen upon, but I was also moved by her description of this experience. Digestive movements TK, FINGERS CROSSED

  • Rachel Janfaza

    I tend to think of fashion as a way to express the personalities inside our bodies.

    It’s coincidental and somewhat serendipitous that this morning you ask the question, “What is fashion?”

    I am a sophomore in college. Just last night I was reading for a Women and Gender Studies class I am taking this semester for our unit on “Beautiful Bodies”. One of our readings was “Fashion Theory” by Malcom Barnard written in 2007.

    In “Fashion Theory”, Barnard argues that our naked bodies are fashion. He explains that bodies and body types go in and out of fashion, just like the clothes that we wear. We adorn our bodies with elements of fashion, not just in our clothing, but also in the exercises we do to modify our bodies’ shape.

    I had not previously thought much about the body as an element of fashion. While I still believe that fashion is an outward expression of my inner persona, exploring the body as an element of fashion is an interesting perspective too.

    • Suzan

      Yeah that is a really interesting notion!
      And very apparent when you look at the defining supermodels of any decade and how their bodyshape was at that moment THE attainable shape to have!

    • Kubla

      When is the natural body coming back in fashion do you think

    • It’s so true, considering the fact that clothing has been used throughout history to accentuate or hide certain parts of the body for various reasons. The “accepted,” fashionable, or coveted body reflects the mindset of our society in historic phases. I’m gonna read that essay. It sounds veeerrryy interesting.

  • I loved reading this and I can’t help but to agree with all of these answers. I believe fashion can take so many forms and purposes; it is art, it is joy, celebration, a way to express emotions and personalities, a way to make a statement, tell a story.
    Thinking about this makes my heart beat a little faster, for me (as cliché as it may sound) fashion is my passion!

  • cbBKNY

    So in love with fashion as a way of feeling ‘alive and present’.

  • SAR

    Loved this article. I read MR almost every morning as part of a probably too strict routine. However, I find myself asking “when will fashion week be over?” during the seemingly endless weeks. I don’t know why, but I think part of what makes MR so fun to read is that it is accessible and real and FUN, but when all the content is just show recaps, it feels repetitive and like a chore to read, for me. My favorite parts of fashion week posts are the diaries and the street style pictures. I personally don’t come to MR to see slideshows of looks presented in shows, I come for the quirk and the personality and the “behind the scenes”.

    • Amelia Diamond

      there will still be some thinkier thoughts on some of the bigger or more thought provoking shows (say think/thought again) but we’re changing up our fw content a bit in terms of how we cover shows! so stay TUnEd

  • brabra1

    I just love Lauren Sherman’s response.

  • Amelia Diamond

    here to say i love this post

    • Adey

      me too, me too!

  • mariahg

    This might be one of my favorite MR posts!
    “You know that feeling: ‘Oh geezus, THERE it is!’ And then, somehow you find a way to make it your own, and once it is [your own], you’re just a little bit more yourself than you were before you found it? That’s fashion to me. Collecting beautiful little pieces of yourself over time.”

    This is the greatest summation of the feeling of personal style- when you feel the most YOU. And the greatest thing about personal style and shopping is that you can have this feeling no matter what the item is ; the designer shoes, the brooch handed down from your grandmother, the bandana you found at a thrift store.

    • Gentlywithoutnoise

      In reading this post I hope to come to some definite answer of what fashion means to me. For my later comebacks of spending more money on shoes and clothes than I’d rather spend on groceries. Collected materials that make me feel most like me I’m so going to use this as a comeback and as a reminder.

    • I was about to quote that exact same sentence. Also “to help connect and mark time”. Yes. 🙂

  • For me fashion is 1) you need fashion because you need to dress (not offendind people that like to be naked) and 2) it’s a way to show personality and elevate my confidence! 🙂

  • Carolina

    For me, personally engaging with the physicality and materiality of fashion (learning about sewing, textiles, fibers, dyes) makes it clear that the things we use to cover ourselves actually connect us to different cultures and places, stories and people. And while objects of fashion are rooted in this physicality, this sense of substance also traces larger cultural thoughts, movements, and beliefs. Remembering that someone conceptualized what I’m wearing, and the likelihood that many other people took part in its creation, makes me want to do it justice by caring for it. It makes me love “fashion” even more.

  • ReadER451

    I love the reviews! I especially love the one sentence reviews. I love a day in the life! I may be one of the few who feels this way.

    • Rosemary

      I absolutely adore a day in the life! A chance to live vicariously through anyone is cool, but especially for women as cool as yall in circumstances as cool as fashion week.

  • Court E. Thompson

    Love this and love all the fashion shows/weeks recaps! I find reading your thoughts are more fun then navigating my own way through the shows.

    Meaning of fashion: agree with Christene on seeing that one item you love and continue to love no matter how long oxblood velvet ankle boots have been “out”. The other thing I particularly love about fashion is its relation to culture and how it adapts or innovates in reaction to what is happening around us. Like when Dior (I think it was Dior) launched in the late 40s featuring full skirts. I read something one time that said it was like Dior opened the door to allowing opulence for the first time since WWII. A history of fashion is a visual history of our culture.

  • theysayshycity

    Unpopular opinion: does anyone else see it as a burden?

    • Leandra Medine

      only when im absorbing fashion as stuff and not as fairy dust — but yes. can you say more? would love to hear

      • theysayshycity

        I’m in a male-dominated, finance-parallel workplace. I would say that fashion is used as a tool of suppression and segregation in these industries (by/for both men and women)…in some ways, as a quasi-queer woman who doesn’t come from the same background as many of my colleagues/clients, I have to “code switch” to adjust to the environment that I’m in.

        I have 3-4 separate wardrobes depending on the part that I have to play in any given context. It’s exhausting and expensive.

        • Kubla

          It sounds like you are super dialed in to what’s going on

        • Valeria

          3-4 wardrobes depending on the part you have to play? Sounds like fun! I guess it’s in the eye of the beholder.

    • Rosemary

      This article helped me understand a lot of the uneasiness or exhaustion i sometimes feel from fashion (and other aspects of existing as a woman). I love the freedom and creativity that women have to express ourselves in so many different ways, but I do wish it didn’t come at such a high price both literally and via mental labor and effort.

      • Kubla

        Yes but we can all be unmarked women if we want. It’s only when we don’t let ourselves be unmarked. I give myself permission to be nobody special, a (imaginary) fashion blogger, and/or dressed in emperors clothes. Not fashion per se but the mindset of control and limitation that is a heavy heavy burden.

        • theysayshycity

          I disagree – I think that this “marked” qualifier can be forced upon us.

          As an example, by the sheer nature of being the only woman in a room full of suited men, I am marked by not being the default.

          • Kubla

            Oh yes it is definitely forced upon us – as are a lot of things, especially in patriarchical society. See, I.e. “invisible influence.” Having things forced upon me does not relieve me of responsibility or even power to know what I really know – that I am not marked by a bunch of men in suits. Then their marking falls flat, has nowhere to land. Or perhaps I use the marking, of course I am different. I am a woman. I am a leader, naturally, a creator.

            But yeah, life’s hard and so is a room full of men sometimes.

          • Kubla

            Also I love yr passion ❤️

      • theysayshycity

        Thanks for sharing! I needed to read that today, can’t believe I haven’t seen it before

        • Rosemary

          Isn’t it fascinating? Glad you enjoyed it!

      • Suzan

        Thank you for linking this, super interesting read!
        I love it when articles make so much sense that you wonder why you haven’t seen it already in that way before.

    • ginnfred

      I do. While I agree with many of the other commenters that it is a way to feel more yourself, I feel mostly betrayed by fashion. The pieces that feel most “me” are either out of my price range or don’t work on my body. And it is always moving so fast I feel like I can’t keep up. I always have these grand outfits planned in my head, but I honestly don’t have the energy to bring them to fruition. I’m always in complete awe of women who can pull this off with quirk and grace. The reason I come to this site I guess….

      • mariahg

        I totally get where you’re coming from! I’m trying to work hard at what I’m about to preach, but I look at it as investing in myself and my style with a dash of Marie Kondo “Does it bring you joy?” It’s not so much about following the trends and expecting to feel or look great, but instead finding the pieces that you truly love. Your energy and confidence are going to be so present, that the focus will be on you as your whole person. Maybe that’s the point of fashion? It’s not just a garment that looks good on a model or in a window, rather it is (supposed to be) a physical representation of the owner or their spirit?

      • I really want to hear more about this. I try to have as much fun as possible with my wardrobe and I work with what I have/can afford. So I’m curious, what’s holding you back?

    • Modupe Oloruntoba

      The conversation around it, the news cycle, the volume of it all, the marketing – all of that can be overwhelming/burdensome, but fashion itself, in its design, purpose, intent, and use, is functional, and does not have to be a burden.

  • Kinsey W

    Fashion is one of the pieces of my armor that I wear everyday in this world. When the outfit, the hair, the spray tan, the makeup all come together, I feel unstoppable. Maybe other woman are stronger fighters without all of this nonsense, but I need these things to feel like I can take on the impossible.

    • Eliza

      I hear ya sister – I like to use it to convince other people of the person I KNOW I am

  • smillipede

    oh shit lauren sherman got deep

  • Charlie

    Because of where I am at this moment fashion is what Claire Beerman once wrote in a MR article: “My life is already messy enough. Should fashion not be an armor for all these situations in which you feel like you’re losing control of everything? While I am far from being put together, I at least want to look like it”. So accurate! Also – fashion is fun, an expression, an aspiration. Perhaps if anything, it’s a visual narrative and conversation about how I feel or how I want to feel.

  • Cynthia Schoonover

    Fashion is a way for me to express my creativity. As I sew, I really enjoy having one-of-a-kind garments. I’m making a denim jacket right now, and it is undergoing various changes as I’m having to fit as I sew, in spite of pattern changes I made before I cut it out.

  • Anne Dyer

    As if we couldn’t love Laura Brown anymore. She is everything magazine editors should be.

    • I love the simplicity in her answer and I totally agree with her..and you!

  • rachel

    I love how so many people in the comments are connecting to Christene Barberich’s line “thats fashion to me. collecting beautiful little pieces of yourself over time.” Sure, from day to day fashion is about armor, about individuality, about expressing yourself. But I think what draws a lot of people to fashion is those special pieces you connect to– even if you don’t wear them or even own them. As a kid, I fell in love with fashion and would imagine my own mundane pieces of clothing to be those perfect pieces that I had seen in magazines and connected to. Sure, I didn’t own any of the clothes I imagined, but they were precious to me, and a part of my ‘collection.’

  • Ciara

    While I really enjoy these personal definitions of fashion, I couldn’t help but think many of them relate more to style. Style being a personally curated collection that represents one’s self. Fashion is different. Ideally, I agree it’s an artistic expression. And while it can generate pieces and inspiration for one’s style, it exists in the way it does today because of the need to consume. While fashion can be very progressive politically in other areas, it often fails to examine how it impacts our environment. Style does not feel wasteful, but fashion does.

  • Mitchell Black

    The point of fashion is to fuel consumption. Everything after that is neoliberal obfuscation, however pretty it may look or feel or sound.

    I know, I know–this is MR, not Jacobin. And it’s not that I, typing from a MacBook in a wealthy Western metropolis, have cleaner hands than anyone else. But what degree of navel-gazing and cognitive dissonance is required to pose/answer this question with absolutely no mention of hyper-capitalism?

    • theysayshycity

      Thank you. The subtext of many of these comments is that we have our self worth and our lives defined in what we collect, how we present ourselves and what we should consider covetable

    • Today’s context, totally.
      But then, fashion has always been about identity and how you present yourself to the world blah blah blah, including in all sorts of pre-capitalist societies.
      What’s interesting to me is how both these aspects are articulated today, recent hyper-consumption and the “universal” aspect of clothing

    • Debbie

      I grew up in a society with this attitude and I resent it. ”Bunker-estetics”, grey concrete buildings and all beauty considered as unnecessary vanity. I’m done feeling ”less than” for appreciating fashion.

  • Caroline Christianson

    I so, so, so love this post.

  • Emily M

    Love this post but I’m not gonna lie, my first instinct was to scroll all the way down here before reading to post about how much I LOVVVVVVE the heading picture. Obsessed. But I made myself read it before commenting and it is just as good as the image 🙂

  • Ap4rna

    I really loved this piece. As a woman who loves fashion but doesn’t work in fashion, I’ve been told flat out by certain people (usually men) that fashion is stupid, nonsensical, and frivolous. That it’s not a “real thing”. These feelings noted above are what makes fashion important in different ways to different people, and I wish I could share this piece with all of the non-believers.

  • Kattigans

    Love this!

  • Kim possible

    This was an incredible post. Well done ❤️

  • May

    This is so good to come from people on the ‘inside’!
    But in my true nerd way, I’d really recommend reading Rebecca Arnold’s articles in the ‘Fashion Theory’ journal – her research into couture in the history of fashion and women’s role in designing is really fascinating!

  • For me, “Fashion is about storytelling through clothing; it’s about the stories behind them and the ones you create around them” – Shiona Turini,. As I was reading the post, I wondered if people also ask “What is the point of art?” At the very least, fashion serves a function – that of covering ourselves and protecting ourselves from the elements. One can argue that art does not serve any function. And yet, it is credited to be the highest form of expression. As cheesy as it may sound at MR, I do believe fashion is an art form. It is a medium of expression that is way more accessible than art could ever be.
    As for the fashion week reviews, I love reading Amanda’s reviews. I wait for those during fashion month. I

  • Hi, Leandra, great question you have asked here. Actually fashion is a thing which makes you more capable to cope up modern dress-up, styles, trends and technology indeed. Many of us will define fashion differently from their point of view. Thanks a lot for sharing this.

  • Daisy

    Fashion is an expression, personal and anthropological. And with an expression of our times, comes history of how we ‘felt’ – it is a reflection of the tone of our time. Personal style is what makes us feel alive, and present – how we choose to articulate the internal.

  • Aistė Bakutytė

    thank you so much for this! fashion is smart, stimulating and empowering. let me put my all black outfit because that’s the purest form of who I am! YES!

  • Cora Kiermeier

    Such a great article!
    Maybe I’ve worked too long in theatres by now but to me fashion is very much playing a role.
    Not exactly being someone else but being able to be different versions of myself. I admit,I feel most “me” all in black with a standout piece but the next day glam to the fullest feels more like me. That probably sounds very superficial and it’s not very deep but helping me dress the way I feel or want to feel – that’s a major part of what fashion is to me.

  • Ally Frankel

    I love this article, and.I love Claire Distenfeld’s response. When I think about this question, one Rachel Zoe quote comes to mind: “Fashion is saying who you are without having to speak.”

  • Sleepyhead

    I think it’s interesting to get peoples perspectives on what fashion means to them. I love fashion. It is art to me. However, It does seem frivolous at times when there is so much happening in the world that takes priority. But, just like fine art, we need beautiful and interesting things to look at no matter what is happening. I think this post would have been much more interesting if you had asked some non-industry people what fashion means to them. We basically got the predictably pro- fashion perspective of people with the privilege of and access to whatever fashion statement they wish to make. It’d be much more interesting (and less exclusive) to ask the same question to a people who are not in the industry and seem to have no access. Do these people running to drop their kids off at school and then go to work in chinos and a sweater think fashion has no meaning, or do they just feel it’s out of their reach because of the cost and time commitment?

  • Owiredua

    This was a really good read, but I’m wondering how legal it is to write about the philosophy of fashion and not have Arabelle Sicardi among those interviewed (LOL)

  • Athena Politou

    Oh I love the last three replies. I definitely think fashion is a form of storytelling. I love to curate stories around my looks and to think through everything and that’s something so personal and intimate. But to add a different view as well, fashion for me is about in the end, staying loyal to and serving an aesthetic that I deem higher. It’s a way to make the world a bit of a prettier place. I also think that while not widely discussed or admitted, expression through fashion also means the seeking of an approval from a group of people whose aesthetic and taste you value. Surely it’s a mostly internal process but I don’t think anyone can actually deny that they are looking for some sort of validation from like-minded people.

  • Elle Shoel

    “Collecting beautiful little pieces of yourself over time.” IS PERFECT

  • Georgia

    I’m here for the article, and I’m also here for the featured pic —- please help, someone! who is the divine seafoam/mint green dress by? and the yellow one?

  • Priyanka Raveendran

    Loved reading this post!

  • camila

    this almost made me cryyyy

  • So many of these definitions made me completely uncomfortable. Is fashion really something that people use to protect themselves from the thoughts about mortality?
    It seems to go a little too deep.
    In my own life, fashion inspires me, it fascinates, the right outfit can really turn things around. But it rarely feeds the souls as much as it feeds your brain with its tendency to want more and more and more.

    • Rosemary

      I really appreciate this perspective! It’s interesting how fashion can seem so powerful, but at the same time, it’s inherently superficial and focused on appearance (even as a metaphor for greater things or a means of rejecting or expanding conventional appearance standards, it’s still filtered through the idea that appearance is important). It’s good to remember that in the form of consumption, fashion does not feed your soul, and good style is not a character trait but rather an aspect of personality and expression. I think there is something to be said for the artistic value of fashion, though – it is inspiring and fascinating, as you said, and I love admiring creativity and innovation in fashion whether or not it’s accessible for me.

  • “Fashion is about storytelling through clothing; it’s about the stories behind them and the ones you create around them. It’s a cultural influence, backstory or intellectual touchpoint that you can trace back to what you’re wearing. We use it to escape the mundane, to embrace and celebrate tradition. It’s about a sense of history and pride and it embodies a greater sense of purpose than just a garment tossed on to cover bodies.” THIS IS FASHION. Great article Leandra!